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Sheet music

Croft: Three odes with orchestra

Edited by Alan Howard
Musica Britannica MB108
ISBN: 9780852499696 ISMN: 9790220228100
xlviii + 127pp, £115.00
Stainer & Bell

This excellent volume contains the two pieces Croft wrote to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 – an earn his Oxford doctorate – and an ode (the editor Alan Howarth argues) to mark the Peace of Ryswick in 1697. if, as likely, that is the case, the composer would still have been a teenager, so the infelicities identified in the informative introduction might be forgiven. The main problem with the source (a later copy by one of Croft’s students from the 1720s) is the labelling of the instrumental parts – in the opening movement, there is a trumpet line (or two trumpet lines?) with unplayable notes, and the editor interprets the next four lines as violins where it strikes me as more likely that the first pair are oboes and the next pair violins. In the following movements, an alto is accompanied by recorders, the soprano and bass by strings, the bass by violins, and the full ensemble renders the short concluding chorus. The Utrecht pieces, whose performances in Oxford were noticed in the press, are far more substantial and it is clear that in the intervening years, Croft has matured as a composer. His debt to the Purcellian court ode is self-evident. Where we nowadays tend to think of him as being obscured by Handel, there is no sense in which this music is overshadowed by the German’s music for the Utrecht celebrations – indeed, some of his best choral writing might suggest that the influence worked in the opposite direction! I hope the availability of these fine pieces will inspire musicians to take up his cause – there really is a wealth of beautiful music here!

Brian Clark 

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Sheet music

Requiems by Giovanni Croce and Giovanni Rovetta

The Requiem Mass at St Mark’s, Venice, in the Seventeenth Century
Edited by Jonathan R. J. Drennan
Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 238
xvii, six plates + 50pp $140
ISBN 978-1-9872-0865-8

This is the first of three volumes surveying Requiem settings at the basilica of San Marco from the 17th to the 19th centuries. After a detailed introduction, Drennan presents the two settings in the traditional A-R format, meaning that my usual gripes about wasted space and dumbing down of time signatures apply. Both works are written for ATTB choir and were intended to be sung from the bigonzo, a large raised “tub” (the edition includes two excellent photographs of the space); only Croce’s setting splits into two groups – and even then only for the Dies irae. Several pages could have been saved if, instead of printing eight staves every time one choir answered the other (on p. 21 meaning Choir 1 has ONE BAR at the end of the page), they were simply both presented on four staves and clearly labelled. This almost certainly have meant that the Sanctus and Agnus Dei would have appeared on an opening, rather than over two pages. Rovetta adds continuo to his setting but – again – space could have been saved (by printing the chant as a single line, for example!) and those two last movements would fit a spread. The music itself is written in the stile antico; polyphony is limited but both composers know how to use rhythm to keep their music interesting while fulfilling the necessity to declaim the text clearly. Both settings are extremely brief; Drennan suggests that has more to do with restrictions set by church authorities than the composers.

Brian Clark

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Recording

Virtuoso harpsichord music

Melody Lin
51:30
CRD 3546

What should a young harpsichordist include in their first recording? The traditional choices are either to pick a minor composer and concentrate on making their music available, or to present a mixed recital that displays ability over a broader range of repertory. The Taiwanese harpsichordist Melody Lin has chosen the latter course in this short CD which ranges from the English Virginalists Farnaby and Byrd, through J. S. Bach, to Rameau and Forqueray. She has recently completed a doctorate in performance at Claremont Graduate University in California and this recording presumably reflects her work for that degree. The informative programme notes have been written by her teacher Robert Zapulla, who has also produced the disc. He praises Lin’s virtuosity, which is indeed much in evidence here. This is a formidable programme and, on the whole, Lin steps up to the challenge. Her virtuosity is still a bit self conscious, and the simpler sections can be a bit plodding at times; there are occasionally some awkward joins between sections in the earlier music. That said, there is some excellent control of contrapuntal writing in the Byrd A minor Fantasia and Bach’s D major Toccata. Lin plays on a William Dowd harpsichord, after an instrument built by the Blanchets around 1730.  It is a good compromise instrument, at its best in the French music, but bringing good clarity to the more contrapuntal pieces. The recording quality is excellent. There is much to admire here, even if there are more polished recordings of these pieces available elsewhere. We can look forward to her next recording, where Lin might perhaps concentrate on a particular area of the repertoire and further refine her playing.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Johann Ludwig Krebs: Keyboard Works volume 3

Steven Devine harpsichord
77:30
resonus RES10329

Steven Devine continues his highly successful series of recordings of the complete surviving keyboard music of Krebs, a favoured pupil of J. S. Bach at Leipzig who went on to settle in nearby Altenburg.  As well as the substantial 6th partita, this volume includes six sonatas which only reappeared in 1999 in Kyiv, the manuscript having been moved from Berlin during the Second World War; this is their first appearance on disc, in Devine’s own edition.  In a standard three-movement Italian form, they show Krebs revelling in the new galant style.  More predictable than those of his contemporary, CPE Bach, these sonatas make a delightful listening experience, relying on logical sequences and echo effects, with some resonances of Handel’s keyboard writing.  Devine has registered them expertly, bringing out both sequences and echoes and wearing his virtuosity very lightly.  He revels in these contrasts and plays throughout with great versatility and verve.

The sixth partita, one of only three surviving from a presumed set of six, shows a fascinating mixture of styles and is a reminder that, although we now see Bach’s partitas as iconic, other versions were available.  There are reminders of the 17th-century toccatas and ricercars of Froberger in the Prelude, echoes of Handel elsewhere, while the chromatic quirkiness of the Sarabande suggests C. P. E. Bach.  There are added galanterien which give a nod to those of J. S. Bach.  With ten movements in total, this work is a compendium of possibilities, all expertly exploited by Devine.  The two surviving sources for the work vary considerably, pointing to continued revision, and the playing here brings out all the possibilities inherent in Krebs’s treatment of the various dance movements. 

Devine plays throughout on a double-manual harpsichord by Colin Booth after a single-manual by Johann Christof Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710), the same instrument he used for the previous volumes in the series and one which suits this music admirably.  His control of the instrument allows the listener to have complete confidence in the playing and in the interpretation.  This recording is definitely to be highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Charpentier: David & Jonathas

Clément Debieuvre David, David Witczak Saul, Edwin Crossley-Mercer the ghost of Samuel/Achis, Jean-François Novelli Joabel, Jean-François Lombard Pythonisse, Natacha Boucher Jonathas, LesPages et les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, Orchestre Les Temps Présents, directed by Olivier Schneebeli
122′ (2 CDs in a CD-sized book)
aparté AP342

David et Jonathas owes its existence to the tradition of the Jesuits of the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris staging plays and musical dramas during the course of carnival season. It dates from 1688, when it was staged between the acts of a now-lost spoken drama. It should be recognised that it is an opera, not an oratorio and as such has a framework familiar for the tragédie en musique, that’s to say a prologue and five acts. Only the relative brevity of the work, with less importance attached to the divertissements and fewer dances than usual mark it out as unusual in that respect.

As was widely recognised from its first performances David et Jonathas is a powerful masterpiece. It is indeed one of the great pieces of late 17th-century French theatre, apparent from the outset of the prologue, which to the best of my knowledge is unique in being a part of the action. In concerning itself not with the usual royal panegyrics but rather with the visit of Saul to the Witch of Endor (Pythonisse) and the fateful utterances of the ghost of Samuel, it provides an introduction to the drama that will unfold, drama culminating in the final tragedy of the deaths in battle of Saul and his son Jonathan. Yet because the opera has a didactic purpose its ending is not tragic, but rather a brilliant paean of praise to the victorious David, the man who remained obedient to God’s laws, in contrast to the defeated Saul, who has not. More importantly still, the opera is an investigation of human relations on a psychological level rare in opera of this period, specifically the complex love between Saul and David, and those of the brotherly love between David and Jonathan. At their heart are the great monologues given to all three, their lyricism again a distinguishing feature of an opera in which récitatif plays a smaller than usual role.

In 2022 the opera was given a superlative production and performance in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, a highly appropriate venue given its original commissioning by the Jesuit fathers of the Collège Louis-le-Grand. That performance has already been issued on CD and DVD on Versailles Spectacles. The set to hand was made live at Versailles, but was a concert performance given in the Opéra Royal the previous year. Ironically it is this performance that seeks to come closer to the original 1688 performance than the staged production in the Chapelle by using a children’s choir for the upper voices and a child for the role of Jonathas, though in this instance a girl rather than a boy. The present performance also almost certainly comes closer to the original performance at the Collège by using considerably smaller orchestral forces, although the playing of the somewhat oddly-named Orchestre Les Temps Présents (it is a period instrument band) is excellent. Also giving a hint of the context of the Jesuit performance is the inclusion of brief spoken 17th-century ‘déclamations’ placed as introductions to each act and, especially movingly, immediately after the death of Jonathan. Thus rather than a play serving as the context, the spoken word provides interludes to a music drama.

One of the features of David et Jonathas is that in contradiction to the title, the leading character is neither Saul’s son nor his much loved David, but the king himself, his tortured soul revealed in a manner and to a depth rare in Baroque opera. The role is here taken by bass David Witczak, heralding the overwhelmingly searing and insightful  characterization he brought to the role just over a year later in the Versailles production. David is sung by contre-ténor Clément Debieuvre, an alumnus of the CDMBV. His voice is lighter and more youthful in timbre than that of Reinoud Van Mechelen, whose assumption of the role was one of the glories of the production. Since the biblical David was young, some may feel Debieuvre’s sensitive if less authoritative performance is more authentic, but there’s no gainsaying Van Mechlelen’s authority. There is of course no valid comparison between the respective interpreters of Jonathas, but the sweet-voiced Natacha Boucher achieves an immensely touching degree of sensitivity in the events leading up to his death (act 5).

The remaining smaller roles are all well filled, with the experienced Edwin Crossley-Mercer a resonant Ghost of Samuel (in the prologue) and Achis, Saul’s general.

There is no question that David et Jonathas is one of the masterpieces of Baroque opera. The story is dramatic, Charpentier’s music magnificent. And like all masterpieces, it is capable of responding to alternative approaches. This version – orientated as it is toward its original college production – is in any event very different to the magisterial Versailles recording. Both have a more than valid place in the catalogue, as indeed does the earlier Erato set under the direction of William Christie.      

Brian Robins

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Recording

Popora: Music for the Venetian Ospedaletto

Josè Maria Lo Monaco contralto, stile galante, Stefano Aresi
67:36
Glossa GCD 923537

On the inside cover of the booklet, along with the other credits, we read: “This recording is an outgrowth of musicological research seeking new insights on historically informed performance practices based upon the acoustics of the Ospedaletto in Venice”. That all sounds great, but there is no further explanation or, indeed, any other comment on the actual performance apart from a half-hearted explanation of the presence of a cello concerto on an otherwise vocal programme because there it is known that one of the women in the orchestra there was a known virtuoso on the instrument…

While the disc is promoted as an exploration of music at the Ospedaletto, in fact it focuses very much on the activities of a single singer for whom Porpora conceived a valuable body of work during his several years there (having also worked at the three other similar institutions in Venice), the alto Angiola Moro. With a range from the A below middle C to the E flat at the top of the treble clef, she apparently had no problem with chromatic scales, wide arpeggios and leaps, or rapid scales. As the “early music voice” seems to get bigger and bigger, it is no surprise to find a singer of the calibre of Josè Maria Lo Monaco tackling this repertoire, and she does it very well.

Whether or not it was played by Niccolosa Fanello, Porpora’s G major cello concerto is beautiful; its opening movement was very reminiscent of some of the slushier passages from the concertos attributed to Wassenaer. The booklet notes tell us that Porpora’s official appointment (after two years of working for free – musicians, it was EVER thus!) the violin teacher asked for extra resources to support him in getting his musicians up to the standards of the “new music”, and – if they were up to playing this piece – he clearly succeeded.

Brian Clark

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Recording

Couperin: Concerts

Emanuel Abbühl oboe/oboe d’amore/cor anglais, David Tomàs bassoon, Carla Sanfelix baroque cello, Miklós Spányi harpsichord Benoït Fallai theorbo
77:22
Genuin GEN 24873

Although Pascal Duc’s booklet note tells us almost everything we could ever need to know about the five suites on this CD, he never once refers to the performances on it – for some people, there may be no need to justify an ensemble that juxtaposes two modern instruments and three baroque ones. Indeed, why not? Surely it is just a different sound world… Yet, for me, there is something missing – technical improvements over time have ironed out all the quirks of early woodwind instruments in order to ensure equality of sound quality over the entire range of the instrument. While I would never criticise the quality of music making here – these are outstanding musicians at the very top of their game – even two harmonic continuo instruments are insufficient to balance the oboe and bassoon. Others will undoubtedly disagree, but I am afraid this is not a recording I shall often return to when I feel the need for Couperin (which does sometimes happen!)

Brian Clark

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Recording

David Pohle: Complete Sonatas & Ballet Music

Clematis
152:16 (2CDs in a card triptych)
Ricercar RIC460

I don’t imagine for a minute that many readers will be familiar with Pohle’s music. He was acquainted with several better-known figures: a student of Schütz in Dresden, later in life he was a friend of Handel’s father in Halle. In between, he worked for the chamber music-loving Margrave Moritz in Kassel, and then the court of Gottorf. In Halle, he wrote a cycle of cantatas for the entire church year, among the first to do so.

Founded in 2001, Clematis most recently impressed me with their recording of Legrenzi’s music and these new discs have merely enhanced my impression. The majority of Pohle’s surviving sonatas are for five or more instruments; he exploits every possible combination of voices in intricate patchwork pieces where counterpoint and homophonic passages – often of striking harmonic richness – are juxtaposed. It’s just the kind of mental stimulation I love! That is why I set out to publish all his surviving manuscript music, in collaboration with the author of the booklet note, Gottfried Gille, and a German postgrad, Juliane Peetz. While it is nice to see my editions credited in the booklet, it is rather frustrating to read that reconstructing the missing first violin part for four of the sonatas was more difficult than 13 of the others, but not that Clematis played my solutions! The second time I’ve been written out of musical history in the past few years…

Be that as it may, the performances are fabulous – the violins are bright, the violas crisp, the winds suitably raspy, and the continuo largely content to supply a backdrop for all the activity in the obbligato parts.

I am surprised that I had not noticed the passage around two and a half minutes into Sonata 6 in A minor that is more than a little reminscent of Monteverdi’s Ballo delle ingrate. The Dances in F (G. 28) survive in the library in Kassel, prefaced by a work called “Le Testament” by a Sr. Belleville; I have to say that they are quite like anything else in the set – I hear Georg Muffat…

Brian Clark

 

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Recording

Vivaldi: Concerti per violino XI

‘Per Anna Maria’
Vivaldi Edition vol. 71
Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante
62:54
naïve OP 7368

Whoever it was who infamously quipped that Vivaldi had written the same concerto several hundred times clearly had never heard the Red Priest’s Concerto in D RV 229 – I just about jumped out of my seat when it started! The double-stopping soloist did more than rouse the band with the dramatic opening bars. Even if there is (inevitably, given that music of the period was largely dominated by ritornello form) a degree of repetitiveness across a large number of his works, the six concertos on this wonderful recording (together with an ornamented version of a slow movement re-used in another) demonstrate the composer’s richness of imagination and command both of his instrument and musical form. All in major keys, the solo parts are all that remains of one source – a volume of 31 pieces (including 24 by Vivaldi) that belonged to one of the Pietà’s stars, Anna Maria. The wonderful Fabio Biondi and his band, Europa Galante (3322 strings and continuo), bring energy and sparkle, and reflection and pathos in equal measure for some exemplary performances of this repertoire. The typically informative booklet note sets the scene for a new appreciation (on my part, at least) for the women behind the grilles of the ospedali…

Brian Clark

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Recording

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon
102:00 (2 CDs in a cardboard box)
harmonia mundi HMM 902710.11

Raphael Pichon’s account of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 has been through a process of metamorphosis since a rather unsatisfactory Proms performance in 2017 followed by a much more convincing account, filmed live in the Versailles chapel which I reviewed enthusiastically in 2019. This version still attempted to set Monteverdi’s music in something of a liturgical context, while unfortunately the DVD subtitles and support materials did a poor job in identifying the interleaved plainchant. This latest CD version for harmonia mundi accepts the current thinking that, far from being a discrete ‘piece’, the publication is a collection of Monteverdi’s best service music written for lavish celebrations of St Barbara at the Gonzaga court of Mantua and gathered together in a portfolio dedicated to the Pope in the hope of employment in one of the important papal institutions in Rome. The failure of this enterprise and Monteverdi’s subsequent career in Venice has frequently influenced performances of this extraordinary music, but actually the important point of reference ought to be the musically flamboyant court of Mantua. The practice of combining the sacred and secular musical resources for the most magnificent Mantuan services for St Barbara justifies the truly epic scale of Pichon’s presentation. It also obviates the need for a liturgical context, and even allows for the aesthetically satisfactory return to the opening fanfare set to relevant text to bookend the whole performance. Epic is the word that keeps coming to mind in describing this latest version of the Vespers, with over seventy musicians performing in the resonant acoustic of the Temple du Saint-Esprit in Paris. Pichon’s control over these large forces is breath-taking, and as previously his line-up of superlative soloists provides us with exquisitely decorated accounts of the solo and small ensemble material. Also prominent in these more intimate moments, although also adding magically to the tutti textures, is a superb team of continuo players, including two harpists, three theorbists, and three harpsichordists, one doubling organ. Their contribution is wonderfully imaginative and perfectly responsive to the voices. The brass and string sections, particularly the two double basses, provide an impressively rich texture to the tutti passages, while the four cornettists contribute virtuosic cadential embellishments which are simply stunning – just listen to them in the concluding doxology of Laetatus sum! Singing at ‘high’ pitch, Pygmalion’s chorus exudes energy and musical purpose and is a model of perfect phrasing and unanimity, while the harmonia mundi engineers have captured this whole remarkable sound in all its vividness. You can tell that this is a performance of a now familiar work which I found thrilling and engaging – it caused me to look back at my favourite accounts by Suzuki, Christophers, and Gardiner’s three versions, and further back to pioneering accounts in the early 1950s by Eugen Jochum and even Leopold Stokowski. What struck me is that for all their scholarly and stylistic shortcomings, the earliest versions had an epic sweep, which has sometimes been missing in later versions. It strikes me that Pichon has managed to embrace the scholarly and the epic dimensions of this music, while modern standards of recorded sound capture this in all its richness and subtlety. This version is not without its quirks – not everybody will like the rather ‘romantic’ dynamic variations (including the curiously ‘cowed’ opening of Dixit Dominus), while the decision to perform the opening and concluding verses of Ave maris stella a capella, when previous conductors’ instincts have been to combine the vocal and instrumental forces accrued in all the other verses, is a curious one. The fact is we have very little idea of the details of performance styles at the time, but knowing that opera singers joined forces with sacred musical forces for the larger-scale religious celebrations suggests that the inherent drama of the music might have been further enhanced for these courtly spectacles.

D. James Ross